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07/15/2009 06:34 PM

A Minor Miracle?

Chocolate Company Promises Melt-Free Revolution

By Alice Chalupny

Chocolate is just as much a part of Switzerland as the Alps. Now, global market leader Barry Callebaut has developed the product that competitors have been hopelessly puzzling over for 60 years -- chocolate that doesn't melt and is low in calories.

Serious mountain climbers know the problem all too well: Packing chocolate in your rucksack only ends in frustration when you reach the summit. If you're walking in freezing cold temperatures, the chocolate bar becomes a rock-hard block that's impossible to bite into without breaking your teeth. But, then again, if the sun is beating down, it won't take long before the chocolate melts into a gooey mess. In the worst-case scenario, you reach the mountain top, finally at your destination, and it's completely liquified.

A not-so-guilty pleasure? Reduced-calorie chocolate that doesn't melt in your hands is set to hit the shops in the next two years.
AP

A not-so-guilty pleasure? Reduced-calorie chocolate that doesn't melt in your hands is set to hit the shops in the next two years.

And even if the temperature is just right, there's still the problem of weight gain. As most of us have finally realized, chocolate is not one of the staple foods of the skinny minnie.

But one Zurich-based chocolate manufacturer thinks it has a solution that could make these problems a thing of the past. Barry Callebaut, whose annual output of over 1.1 million tons of cocoa and chocolate products makes it the world's largest producer of chocolate, has developed a type of chocolate with completely new properties. According to the company's head developer, Hans Vriens, the chocolate has up to 90 percent fewer calories than regular chocolate.

What's more, high temperatures can't touch it -- unless, by chance, they soar higher than 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit). Depending on its composition, traditional chocolate starts to melt at around 30 degrees Celsius. And that's the inspiration behind the tentative name its developers have given the new product: "Vulcano."

The bar's creators want to use it to tackle a growing problem: In Western Europe and North America, chocolate consumption has leveled off and, in some cases, begun to decline. In the past year, consumers in the eight largest western European countries consumed 2 percent less chocolate. In the US, consumption decreased by 8 percent. Under these circumstances, manufacturers are forced to rely on emerging markets for future profits.

The calorie-reduced "Vulcano" will be made available in both bar and cookie form. In this stagnant market, Callebaut hopes that it will raise widespread interest, especially in diet-obsessed America. Thanks to its ability to withstand high temperatures, "Vulcano" has a realistic chance of making a dent in the market in warmer parts of the world, as well. As things currently stand, marketing a heat-sensitive product in such regions without setting up expensive "cold chains," as temperature-controlled supply chains are known, is almost impossible. A chocolate product that could withstand high temperatures would solve this problem. According to Vriens, the company wants to start by targeting India, China and southern Europe.

"The idea sounds intriguing" says Daniel Bürki, a financial analyst at the Zurich Cantonal Bank. But he's still not fully convinced about the chocolate's chances of success. "Past experience has shown that melt-proof chocolate cannot compete with traditional products when it comes to taste," he adds. In his opinion, the special product is more important for the draw it has on investors. "They love these kinds of stories," Bürki says.

But if Barry Callebaut really has solved the problem of flavor, he adds, "Vulcano" could become a huge success. "In the warm emerging markets, particularly China, there is a growing middle class, which can afford to buy chocolate -- and wants to," Bürki says.

Previous Attempts

Barry Callebaut is not the first chocolate manufacturer to try to create a melt-proof chocolate. The first one was produced by Hershey's for the US Army during World War II. The army's product requirements were relatively simple: The chocolate must be as nutritious as possible, be able to withstand temperatures of up to 60 degrees Celsius and weigh four ounces (113 grams).

Hershey's production machines were designed to pour liquid chocolate into moulds. But because it was lacking a lot of the cocoa butter that goes into regular chocolate, the heat-resistant chocolate was too solid to be produced using the machines. As a result, Hershey's had to make every single bar by hand. The results were rock-hard, rectangular bars that could only be broken with considerable effort and strength.

In the following decades, Hershey's continually improved the chocolate's taste and consistency -- but none of the heat-proof chocolate bars ever made it into commercial production. And that includes the "Desert Bar" given to soldiers in Iraq.

Preparing for the Revolution

Vriens is clearly convinced that Barry Callebaut will conquer the market with "Vulcano." As he sees it, the chocolate's crunchiness makes up for its lack of creaminess. Likewise, as soon as it reaches your tongue, it melts just like traditional chocolate. But it's not the warmth of your mouth that does this; it's your saliva.

Barry Callebaut first told its investors about "Vulcano" at a company presentation in March 2008. At the time, the product was still in the developmental stages. Since then, according to Vriens, all patents have been registered. Moreover, the first taste tests have been successfully conducted, and the product is now ready to be presented to industry clients.

Still, "Vulcano" is only one of the products Barry Callebaut is resting its hopes on. The company wants to tackle the stagnant market for traditional chocolate with a whole range of speciality chocolates. These include cocoa powder that is completely water-soluble as well as a chocolate that preserves your teeth and one that improves your digestion. Vriens estimates that, in three to five years, such speciality products may ultimately come to make up a double-digit percentage of the company's production volume. But Vriens won't hazard a guess at how much "Vulcano" will increase the company's total volume.

Niche Market

Only a relatively small proportion -- about 20 percent -- of Barry Callebaut's production is for the company's own chocolate brands. The rest of the company's production is for other manufacturers, such as Nestlé, Hershey's and Cadbury Schweppes. As a result, the success of "Vulcano" will depend on how many and which industry clients Barry Callebaut can win over. In the end, they will decide in which form the chocolate comes to market and how intensively it will be marketed to consumers.

According to Vriens, all of the major industry clients have expressed interest in the product. He remains tight-lipped about the progress of current negotiations, but he will say that the product should be on the shelves in about two years.

At the moment, Vriens' company seems to have this corner of the market all to itself. None of its main competitors -- such as Cargill, Blommer and ADM -- have shown signs of developing a comparable, saleable product.

Even the Swiss chocolate company Lindt & Sprüngli -- which, unlike Nestlé and similar companies, does not outsource its production -- has dismissed the idea. When questioned about it, a representative said: "We currently have no plans to develop a melt-proof chocolate." Instead, the representative added, Lindt & Sprüngi will continue to focus on premium products and will stand by its tried-and-tested recipes.

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